An adolescent in crisis. Intimate, observational storytelling. Powerful naturalistic performances. Lovely magic hour cinematography. This could describe any number of contemporary neo-realist dramas produced in Europe each year, and if you were to reverse engineer such a film The Last Hammer Blow (Le dernier coup de marteau) might resemble the result. Despite its familiar trappings, however, Alix Delaporte’s second feature manages to distinguish itself with an unexpected reserve and emotional impact.
The Last Hammer Blow follows Victor (newcomer Romain Paul), an introspective and self-sufficient 14-year-old boy who we encounter hitch-hiking home in the opening scene. He lives in a seaside community of trailers with his frail, bewigged mother (Clotilde Hesme). Suffering from some kind of unspecified yet seemingly terminal cancer, she is an unstable but loving presence. When Victor learns that his estranged father (Gregory Gadebois), a renowned conductor, is in town for a performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (from which the film takes its title), he seeks him out in the hope of forming a relationship. On top of this, Victor must juggle school, his crush on the Spanish girl next door, and pressure from his well-meaning soccer coach. This no doubt reads as a few too many plot contrivances for an already confused adolescent, but Delaporte pulls it off with a subtle touch, favouring body language and facial expressions over dialogue, allowing the audience to read between the lines of her characters’ often inarticulate exchanges. After collaborating with veterans Hesme and Gadebois on 2010’s Angèle et Tony, Delaporte could rely on them to deliver, but with Victor occupying nearly every frame her film could only be as good as its lead actor. Fortunately she has made a remarkable discovery in Romain Paul, whose mesmerising debut performance is the film’s strongest element and deservedly won him the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at last year’s Venice Film Festival (an honour previously bestowed on the comparable Tye Sheridan).
For what could have been just another unassuming and slight entry in the coming-of-age canon, The Last Hammer Blow sneaks up on you with just how deeply affecting it becomes — tastefully avoiding the saccharine and melodramatic — and its promising young star will certainly be one to watch.
The Last Hammer Blow is screening across New Zealand as part of the 2015 Alliance Française French Film Festival. View the trailer below.